If you’re new to crypto you might not have heard of Vitalik Buterin. If you’ve been in crypto for more than a week you might have trouble not hearing about him every day.
In that order.
Vitalik was born in Kolomna, Russia, and at the age of six, his parents emigrated to Canada for better work opportunities. His parents are both involved in the Ethereum community, and if you’ve ever seen his father’s Twitter feed – it’s not too hard to see the values that they instilled in their son.
He was identified as gifted in grade three, and via some strong early educational opportunities including a private high school, studying at the University of Waterloo (Stephen Hawking’s last gig), and a Peter Thiel fellowship; Vitalik was able to work and research his interests, starting with Bitcoin and eventually writing for Bitcoin Magazine.
Earlier on with the influence of Ian Goldberg who he worked for as a research assistant, he learned about the TOR project and then became enamored with Bitcoin after his father had taught him about it when he was seventeen years old.
Vitalik is a bit of an enigma in the crypto universe. Although aware of the prestige and attention he receives as the most well-known founder of Ethereum, he generally shuns the spotlight if possible. Instead, he tries to focus on the overall goals of any given project and attempts to project any personal success onto Ethereum as a means to achieve public works ends or draw attention to other hard-working developers in the space. He also has an extremely underrated sense of humor.
If you read anything on his website vitalik.ca you will see that his interests, although varied, tend to focus on logical methods to achieve meaningful and fair results. Leveraging the power of mathematics, statistics, and philosophy; Vitalik attempts to engage with more modern free market solutions such as Quadratic Voting, Zero-Knowledge Proofs, and specialized grant awarding systems. He is in this author’s opinion very good at explaining complex systems in straightforward essays.
Although Vitalik is squarely on a mission to improve people’s lives and experiences through his shared creation of Ethereum, he is by no means a one-trick pony. He happily memes himself or posts provocative photos of his face in porn star asses just to mess with those in the crypto community who would place him on a pedestal.
I know that the last one is a bit hard to read, but Vitalik is about as self-aware as any person with this much attention can be.
I find myself projecting that Vitalik is the type of person who would be happy to talk about anything on any given day but would be bored by pointless social niceties, or small talk with no greater goal past an introduction, or potential funding of a project. I feel he has a good bullshit detector yet can be patient with newcomers to the crypto space.
Mathematicians or scientists like Vitalik I believe to be aware of their limited mortality and seek out like-minded people that wish to supercharge their lives with challenging problems and seek to attack the most difficult societal ills; especially if they are based in the technical, or software realm. His donations to the SENS Research Foundation hark to previous extropian interest by the cyberpunk generation who before the current crypto generation became somewhat obsessed with eternal life, cryogenics, and even storing their frozen heads if they couldn’t afford to freeze their whole bodies (Yes, this is a real thing that’s been around for a while). It’s not hard to see why people might want to get a piece of Vitalik Buterin.
I was happy to get the chance to write about Vitalik, but at the same time face a dilemma when trying to capture any iconoclast such as Mr. Buterin. Self-aware and confident, fully committed to the goals at hand, or amazing at looking sincere, but racked with fear and doubt?
I’ve heard him interviewed many times; you get the sense that he’s striving to give his best every single time but gets bogged down sometimes in the generic questions that sometimes must be asked to give the audience a bit more context into who he is, and what he does. How many times can you explain what a blockchain is, or tell the story of what you did almost a decade ago ad nauseam?
You get the feeling that it must be quite the contrast to be idolized so severely in the crypto bubble yet be almost unheard of in the realm of the crypto uninitiated. So how best can I summarize such a person who has been written about so extensively in the past? How do I put labels on a man that fights so hard to not be labeled as anything but helpful and competent? His parents are also active in the crypto space, yet you get a strong sense that independence is strongly encouraged in this family and that at this point there is a concurrence of both familial bonds and almost a co-worker attitude. The Buterins like to work hard and accomplish their goals, but not lose sight of the fun to be had along the way. This seems to be their philosophy on life.
Specifically, I remember Vitalik speaking about the first founders of Ethereum and how honestly in hindsight it was way too many founders (Eight!) to be successful at the time. Although things worked out in the end it had left the impression on him that there were just better ways to accomplish his goals. This ability to look back and learn from experiences has served Vitalik well as many founders originating from crypto lack the emotional intelligence to be able to pivot fast in a marketplace that changes so quickly. As the saying goes in crypto, a year can happen in a week, or at least that’s how it feels sometimes. Reading through some of the topics Vitalik has written about on his website left me with some proverbial tea leaves about his interests outside of or married within the crypto landscape he so well serves.
Privacy, Crypto Cities, Quadratic Payments, Philosophy of Blockchain Validation, and grants, lots, and lots of grants. You could never accuse Vitalik of not trying to get as much done as possible, as efficiently and fairly as possible. With an open mind in a closed space – the man radiates possibilities and real change. If 4chan is hell, then Vitalik is the mirror that reflects what is possible if we are serious, but not too serious to avoid jamming our faces into a porn star’s butt.
The man is both unintentionally hilarious, yet also keenly aware of the semi-deity status he holds within his community. Russian/Canadian sensibilities allow him to reflect jokes on the teller, and to be confident in his work, but also share it with the community without getting too jealous for credit and adoration.
To me Vitalik is the anti-VC Venture Capitalist who understands the value you are trying to extract, yet also realizes what must be necessary to achieve the goals of Ethereum. A better world, with better systems designed for the future of humanity. A fairer market system with quadratic voting, and payments, with ZK technology, and philosophy of design taken seriously. I do believe Vitalik to be a very serious individual when it comes to the goals he has set for himself, but these also flow in parallel with his philosophy of fair grants, distribution of funding, and the gift that is software and mathematics for the entire world.
Vitalik’s greatest gift might just be his ability to teach difficult concepts via his fantastic essays, or conversational interviews. To draw out the most important nugget of truth buried deep within impenetrable scientific notation. When you read Vitalik’s writing you feel that he is right there with you, like a modern-day Stephen Hawking, or Carl Sagan – imploring you to learn more, contribute more, and understand the universe you live in. Embrace the math and enjoy the success that hard work and camaraderie bring.
Earlier today I was Direct Messaging with a friend on Crypto Twitter (CT for the uninitiated). We were discussing how terrible some of the people in the space truly are. Not the memes of the day, or the founders that try to dump on their followers. No, the people implored people to hurt themselves, be depressed, or just wanted to see the world burn.
In this sense, Vitalik is the smooth tonic that allows you to enjoy crypto, the nerd we can all admire. The world loves its math geniuses, but only the ones that can do it confidently without coming off as smarmy, overconfident, or insincere. We all want more of these individuals, and all I can say is that a person like Vitalik bounces around crypto like a comet in space – never losing energy to friction or atrophy. I’ve never met him but do hope to one day shake his hand or witness him pop out of a bear suit.
There are many other profiles of Vitalik Buterin that go into the arduous day-to-day of being a blockchain founder, but I find that the vitality of the Buterin family is what inspired me to write more about what I believe lives in the heart of this man. He simply is a man that believes in what he does, shares what is humanly possible, and really, really wants blockchain technology to change the world for the better.
Thank you Vitalik, your work is appreciated.
Main Image Photo Credit: “Founder of Ethereum Vitalik Buterin during TechCrunch Disrupt London 2015 – Day 2 at Copper Box Arena on December 8, 2015 in London, England” by John Phillips is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.